How We Finally Caught Up to Elaine Stritch

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Stritch did drink at a time when it was considered gauche for women to do so. Her eventual sobriety remained a question mark among some friends and colleagues who spoke with Jacobs. “I think I really got too stuck on the drinking and did she drink or not drink? Was she sober or not?” Jacobs said. “In the end it wasn’t that significant. No, she wasn’t completely sober in that long interval from whatever. Who cares?”

Stritch’s career was a scatterplot of qualified successes that, in time, amounted to an upward trajectory, and Jacobs covers the roles she didn’t get as much as the roles she did. She was Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam; the actors had a delightfully antagonistic relationship throughout Merman’s life. Her breakout was probably a revival of Pal Joey in 1952, since she became known for her rendition of “Zip.” She took a turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? that even Edward Albee approved of, and was a favorite in English writer-director Noël Coward’s later work, living and working in London for a spell, and staying in the Savoy at a reduced rate in exchange for mentioning the hotel to the press (the original influencer, perhaps). In her television, film, and theater roles, she always seemed to be a reviewers’ favorite in otherwise flawed productions—a refrain that got tedious in the reading, but probably felt more so in real life. But Company, and later Follies, placed her at the dead center of Broadway during Sondheim’s golden years, with the role of Joanne in Company. She, Sondheim, and director Hal Prince all claimed to have come up with the idea for Stritch’s shattering “Everybody rise!” ending to her most recognizable song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

And then a career-topping breakthrough. Her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty earned her first Tony Award when she was all of 77. It was another piece of good timing, though horrifically so. She was meant to rehearse for the show on September 11, 2001. “Well, I guess we’re not going to rehearse today,” went the message she left on her director’s answering machine that afternoon.

By September 13, they decided the show must go on, and started read-throughs. “She became a figure of survival,” Jacobs said. “New Yorkers went to that show, and her message was very much, ‘I’ve been through it. I’ve been through this, I’ve been through that.’”

“And you know, she wasn’t talking about politics or Vietnam or anything. She was only talking about being through the ups and downs of theater life. However, she became a figure of someone who had survived so much in history.” Plus, Jacobs reminded me, it was called “At Liberty.

So Stritch was the rare figure who got more famous as her career went on, spiking after her famously long legs aged, and her Hitchcock blonde grayed. She got the recognition she always wanted, always suspected she deserved at the end of her life. But she’s not an easy heroine in Jacobs’s telling. To the extent that she fought for her art, for top billing, and for compensation, it was not some brave, right-side-of-history push for gender parity. “It was like the low voice and the short hair and the masculine dress and not getting married and negotiating her own salary and all that stuff—it was just kind of just doing it her way,” Jacobs said. Her narcissism tripped her up as often as it fueled her art. That kind of complexity makes for poor hero-worship, but great storytelling.

“The contradiction that was most difficult to resolve was that she was so completely available,” Jacobs said. “She talked to every columnist. She talked to people in the street. She had so many friends. Yet she was essentially maybe unknowable. A lot of people, even those who knew her really well, were like, ‘Did you crack her? Did you explain it?’”

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